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How Much Is Enough?

Is your car costing too much to repair? What can you do about it?

One of the things I'm asked quite often is "Is the car worth putting money into?" As a mechanic, it's very difficult for me to answer, mainly because it's not my car. It's your car and that's something you, as the owner, have to decide. Mechanics make their living by fixing your car, it really doesn't matter too much whether the car is worth fixing or not. Sometimes the answer is obvious, the high dollar amount of a repair may answer it for you. Sometimes the answer is not so obvious.

If you blow an engine or transmission on a five-year-old car, then, most likely, you will decide to repair or replace it. After all, the car is young and still has a lot of life in it. But to make a major repair like that on a car that's 10 or 15 years old is a little harder. There are a lot of things to consider before shelling out big bucks for a major repair. In this case you might want to get a mechanical assessment of the car before you decide to commit to a repair.

If one of my regular customers come in and needs a major repair, I know the general condition of the car and can advise them of whether or not the car is worth a major repair. Notice I said, "advise", I will not tell a customer the car is not worth it. It is their car and that decision is theirs. I can give them an unbiased assessment of the general condition of their car, but I can't decide for them.

If you find yourself in a position where you have to decide whether or not to make a repair, have the general condition of the car checked. Most shops will charge a nominal fee for this, but it is well worth it before you commit yourself to a decision you may regret later. Knowledge is power and in this case money in or out of your pocket.

Some of the things you want to check are the basic mechanical systems. You want to make sure the brakes are in good shape. I don't mean the brake pads or shoes; I mean the base system itself. You'll have to replace these things on any car in any condition. I check the brake lines and hoses. If the lines look good without a lot of rust, the hoses are good and without cracks and no leaks anywhere, then you basically have a good system.

Another thing to look at is the steering and suspension. I check to make sure that the tie rod ends, ball joints, idler arm and bushings are tight and don't show signs of excess wear. I look at the struts and shocks and see if they are leaking or if the mounts are in good shape. I also look at the tires very carefully. By looking at how they are wearing, they can reveal any hidden problems. If the car has rack and pinion steering, I look to see if the rack boots, the mounting brackets and bushings are good and that it is not leaking. I also look at the CV joints, if the car is front wheel drive, and make sure they are in good shape.

In the case of a transmission replacement, I check the condition of the engine. Basic to this is a compression test. If the engine has good compression and is even between all the cylinders, then it's a good bet the engine still has a lot of miles left in it. If you have low compression or compression varies a great deal between cylinders, you're looking at problems down the road. Potently expensive problems. I also listen to the engine. I use my stethoscope to listen to the bottom end to see if there are any noises that would indicate bad bearings or any sound that could indicate a problem in the future.

In the case of an engine problem, I would check the transmission. If the car doesn't run, there's not much you can do to check it. About the only thing you can do is look at the transmission fluid to see if it's burnt or smells. You can also drop the pan and see if there are any big pieces that would indicate something is broken internally. You have to keep in mind that transmissions wear out, so the more miles on the car, the closer you are to repair or replacement regardless of what else is obvious.

The next thing to check is the basic structure of the car. All cars will have a certain amount of surface rust, this is normal. What I look for any heavy rust, especially in the areas where other things mount to it. Things like shock towers, control arm attachment points and other places take a lot of strain and any excessive rusting could indicate a failure in these areas. I use a special type of punch to test frame rails and undercarriage areas to see if any internal rusting is cause weak areas.

Once you have this information, you can better decide if the car is worth a repair. Now any one of these areas, except rusting, may not be enough to condemn the car, but if there are problems in multiple areas, you may decide to take the repair money and put it down on another car.

Now another problem is the car that has no major problems, but a lot of little problems. We refer to it as "nickel and dimeing you to death." This is a car that needs a $80.00 repair one week, a $50.00 repair the next week, a $110.00 repair two weeks later and so on. This can do an effective job of keeping you broke. You may take the attitude of "Well, I fixed all of this, there's nothing else that can go wrong." but believe me, there will always be something else. This makes deciding whether a car is worth sinking money into harder because there is nothing major. If you have a car like this, you might want to get it checked out and see if it is indeed time to get rid of it and into something else.

Another factor is how much you like your car. I just started a poll on this and so far everyone responding does like his or her car. Now this is easy to answer if the car is new or in good shape, but it gets a little more difficult when it's time to shell out some major repair money. The thing to decide is, do you like it enough to keep it going and spending the money that it's going to take to keep it running and safe.

When I have to tell a customer that their old clunker needs an expensive repair, I often hear "The car's not worth it, but I can't afford another one." This is a common problem, people can't afford to keep putting money into a car nor can they afford to get into another one. I don't have an answer for this problem. All I can do is try to help the customer as much as I can as far as price goes. I have, on a number of occasions, reduced my labor price to try and help if I can. In the case of one elderly lady who was (she's passed on now) a regular customer, I didn't even charge her labor. She used to knit me sweaters and give me little presents in appreciation and the smile on her face was all the payment I needed.

So, when is enough, enough? That's up to you to decide. Get as much information on the shape your car is in and you can make a more informed decision. It's your money and your car, decide wisely.

Additional Information provided courtesy of and Warranty Direct
© 2000-2007 Vincent T. Ciulla

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